4.0020 Gender (48)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 9 May 90 17:35:17 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0020. Wednesday, 9 May 1990.

Date: Wed, 9 May 90 21:47:00 -0200
From: onomata@bengus (nissan ephraim)
Subject: gender.

In early times, cars used to be masculine in Italian: "un automobile"
presupposed "un [veicolo] automobile"; e.g., an automotive vehicle.
However, gender was reversed, and now cars are in the feminine:
"un'automobile", "una automobile", perhaps presupposing "una mcchina
automobile". It was the ultra-nationalist and supermanist poet Gabriele
d'Annunzio who decided that car is female, and everybody followed suit.
Cars amplify the motive capability, and the ego, of drivers, and are felt
to be passive themselves. In Hebrew, too, both "machine" (mekhona) and
"car" (mekhonit) are in the feminine: "mekhona" is an aaptation of the
international term, but as if the lexical root were "kwn", which in
Hebrew used to yield derivatives associated with "standing", and solidly
so (and in Arabic, with "being"). I recently inquired about the gender
of "car" in Russian with our departmental secretary, a born Russian, and
told her about D'Annunzio; I did not get the linguistic datum I looked
for, but, instead, her conviction that "cars (`mekhonit') must be
female". A man myself, I was somewhat hurt by this sexist attitude, but
seemingly the psycholinguistic prejudice about the gender/sex of cars is
trans-national and trans-cultural.

On the other hand, in Italian, "calcolatore [elettronico]", or, for
computer people, also "elaboratore elettronico", is in the masculine;
calculators, much more limited in their capabilities, came before, were
named before, and are still named and "calcolatrice", "macchina
calcolatrice". In the early 1980s there still was a course, in certain
out-of-hand universities, named "macchine calcolatrici": by name,
concerning calculators, but actually in computing. Morphological
patterns are to blame, but considering the lexicon synchronically,
ignoring recent history, one is left with the sad impression that
computing are "male" and calculators are "female", reflecting
considerations on sexual roles in human society. That is, albeit
computers are as passive as cars, here it is comparison with calculators
which makes computers masculine, as if male. Actually, I don't believe
anybody had such sexist intentions, in coining "calcolatore" or
"calcolatrice", albeit I have some doubts about "calcolatore": it is the
morphological derivation patterns at hand that already carried gender
with them. I recall my (by then) old teacher in the humanities, at
junior high school in Milan, used to boast that her own teacher used to
praise her "male" recall power.

Ephraim Nissan

Department of Mathematics & Computer Science,
Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
P.O. Box 653, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel.

BITNET address: onomata@bengus.bitnet